Nearly 200 people came to San Jose on Thursday, Dec. 7 to watch the debate, filling the seats and lining the walls of the chamber. But after hours of impassioned public comment from dozens of people, the 11-member committee — the Santa Clara County Committee for School District Organization — put off deciding the future of public education in the Hills until Jan. 25.
In the meantime, committee members said, local residents should begin a "healing" process to mend the divide between them.
"You are a community that has been involved in a very intense dialogue," committee chair Josephine Levy told the audience. "Once the decision is made, you need to begin communicating as neighbors."
Committee member Robert Bench agreed, saying "This is so difficult because I see a 50/50 split. Whatever way we vote, we'll make half the people unhappy."
Debate in Los Altos Hills, where some residents want to break from the Los Altos and Palo Alto school districts to form their own local K-8 grade, has hit a high point among its 7,900 residents. Those in support of redistricting have been dubbed "secessionists" by opponents, a term which drew rancor at the hearing for its pejorative ties to the Civil War era.
Public testimony Thursday was a circus of community participation, with pleas coming from children and teenagers, parents and grandparents, district superintendents and local leaders, all of whom lined up for hours to speak.
Currently there is no neighborhood public school in the Hills. On the other hand, Hills Mayor Craig Jones told the committee, Los Altos and Palo Alto "have plenty of them, so they must think they are very important. But the schools are all in their towns, and not in ours. We want to have the same opportunity for this precious commodity."
Testimony from community members in support of redistricting portrayed a town where neighbors didn't know neighbors and children living on the same street had never met. Officials estimated that 50 percent of children in the Hills attended private schools.
Bart Carey, from the Hills' planning commission, said that "Despite the fact that we have two of the best school districts in the state, almost 50 percent of our kids don't attend. We want to draw these kids back into our community. We are proponents of public education."
The message from the superintendents representing Mountain View, Los Altos and Palo Alto was that the promise of a local neighborhood school was already being fulfilled.
Bullis Elementary — the Hills school which was closed in 2003, setting off the original debate — is set to reopen in August 2008, they said, and Superintendent Tim Justus reported that the site will be renovated and remodeled at a cost of $10.9 million. Improvements will include new multi-purpose rooms, indoor and outdoor stages, a new library, wireless connectivity for the entire campus and enhanced recreational areas.
"The one precious commodity they have asked for, we are delivering in 2008, "Justus said.
The three superintendents — including Barry Groves, superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos school district — also cautioned that "seceding" from neighboring districts would prevent Hills children from attending top-rated schools at the elementary, intermediate and high school levels. Families in the southern part of the Hills would lose the option of going to Loyola Elementary or Egan and Blach Intermediate in Los Altos, and families in the northern part would be excluded from Nixon Elementary, Terman Middle School and, possibly, Gunn High School in Palo Alto.
Committee member Nick Gervase, in his closing comments, echoed the sentiments of the three superintendents when he told Hills residents, "I know that those are good school districts and those kids are doing well. I don't think you'll really surpass what the unified school districts can offer."
Ultimately, the decision may come down to simply abiding by state law, which mandates that newly formed districts have an adequate number of children to justify the need. While redistricting proponents claim they can fulfill that criteria, opponents say they doubt the claim, believing that the supposed 900-plus students include a large portion who currently attend private school and are not likely to switch over.
Groves was blunt on the subject, telling the committee he thought the redistricting plan "so blatantly unlawful there is no point in going forward."
The Santa Clara County Committee of School Organization is scheduled to hold its next meeting on the issue on 4 p.m. Jan. 25, in a hearing open to the general public. At that time, committee members said, they will give 50 people unable to testify Thursday the chance to speak before delivering their decision. The Department of Education is located at 1290 Ridder Park Drive in San Jose.